Chocolate: The Exhibition, is showing now until January 2 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. While visiting family in Minneapolis, I was able to visit this exhibit, on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago. This is a very well assembled presentation, both educational and entertaining. It begins with the history of cocao, starting with its Aztec origins, follows chocolate’s introduction to Europe by the Spaniards, explains its connection with the slave trade, and ends with a well detailed display of commercial chocolate candy production.
Chocolate making tools, historical and modern, are on display. I smiled to see a molinillo, almost identical to the two I brought from Mexico as gifts. This ancient tool, used for hundreds of years to foam hot chocolate, is still widely used in Mexico today. The molinillo on display is labeled a “stirrer”, which I think is a misnomer. When using a molinillo, a whisking action, not a stirring action, is employed to create foam and bubbles.
Two more molinillos are in the case pictured below, with the deep, clay pots used for foaming chocolate drinks. Molinillos, hand carved with their jangly rings from a single piece of wood, are still sold in Mexican markets and even in some modern supermercados.
I thought I already knew a lot about chocolate, but I was surprised to learn about its connection to slavery. The Aztecs had yet to discover sugar and drank their chocolate bitter, seasoned with chiles and other spices, but the Europeans added sugar and the new drink became a favorite. As this new taste swept through Europe, a great demand for cocao beans and cane sugar grew. The dark side to this story is that a huge pool of slave labor was required to supply Europe with chocolate and sugar. Ironically, the first people pressed into slavery to harvest great quantities of cocao beans and sugar cane were Mesoamericans, who labored from the early 16th. until the late 18th. century to supply European demand.
I regret including such a negative note about one of my favorite foods, but I would be amiss to ignore the fact that much of today’s chocolate is still produced from cocao beans harvested by children, literally working as slaves. This is a dirty secret of the chocolate industry, one swept under the rug as profits trump ethics. Buy chocolate labeled “Fair Trade” to insure you are not participating in a commerce that exploits slave workers. To see a list of companies producing fair trade and organic chocolate, and to learn more about exploitation of cocao workers, read Stop Chocolate Slavery.
(Update: For more on this topic, see my more recent article , Chocolate, Slavery and our Collective Guilt.)
After writing this, I’m ready to eat chocolate. Thank goodness I have four bars of B.T. McElrath chocolate, handcrafted chocolate from Minneapolis. Thank goodness it is fair trade chocolate. I don’t know which bar I like best: Chile Limón, Dark Chocolate or Salty Dog, with a pop of salt crystals in each bite.
Chocolate: The Exhibition will be on on display through January 2, 2011, at the Minnesota History Center, located at 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children. Phone: 651-259-3000.
History of Chocolate (Field Museum)
- Make A Reese’s Ad Asking for Fair Trade Chocolate (humantrafficking.change.org)